On March 11th, 2020, as new cases of coronavirus were popping up around the United States at an alarming rate, the president, seeking to reassure Americans that everything was under control, delivered a primetime address from the Oval Office. “To keep new cases from entering our shores, we will be suspending all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days,” Donald Trump said.
His words instantly sparked a panic around the world. Americans in Europe rushed to airports, worried they would be shut out if they didn’t return home immediately. And that rush would later fuel the outbreak stateside: epidemiologists would later assert that the U.S. outbreak was driven, overwhelmingly, by the European strain — not the Chinese.
A new memoir from the Trump White House’s communications director offers a backstory to that disastrous presidential address. The whole thing was Ivanka Trump’s idea, Stephanie Grisham writes in I’ll Take Your Questions Now. An excerpt of the book, which goes on sale next week, was published by Politico on Friday morning.
Grisham, who describes the Trump White House as “a clown car on fire running at full speed into a warehouse full of fireworks,” served as Melania Trump’s press secretary and later her chief of staff. In between, she worked as the White House’s communications director, a position she likened to “sitting in a beautiful office while a sprinkler system pours water down on you every second and ruins everything on your desk.”
The Oval Office address, Grisham writes, was “a total clusterf— from start to finish because Ivanka and her crew wanted her father to be on TV.”
She recounts that the morning of March 11th started with a Coronavirus Task Force meeting, featuring Covid experts like Robert Redfield, Deborah Birx and Anthony Fauci, and administration figures like Vice President Mike Pence and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin arguing over whether or not to close the border to Europe.
“After about an hour of going around in circles,” Grisham says, “The president told us all to go to the Cabinet Room and ‘figure out what to do.’”
There, Grisham writes, “Ivanka was also doing her ‘my father’ wants this and ‘my father’ thinks that routine, making it impossible for staff members to argue a contrary view. At some point I think Birx decided she’d ridden on the crazy train long enough and excused herself to get back to work. I used that opportunity to leave as well.
“I instructed one of my deputies to call the networks to reserve airtime for that evening — which no one else had even thought to do. Katie Miller, an aide to the vice president, was married to speechwriter Stephen Miller. So she went into Stephen’s office and sat there while Jared Kushner frantically dictated the address to Stephen, who wrote something out. Katie did her best to keep us looped in, sending me updates as she knew them.”
It’s worth noting that, as White House communications director during Trump’s disastrous Oval Office speech, Grisham has obvious motivations for publicly placing the blame for one of the biggest communications blunders of her tenure on someone else. (She writes, “One of my other biggest personal regrets is that I didn’t have the courage to speak out against Jared, Ivanka and Hope [Hicks] about the potential dangers of addressing the nation without any Covid response strategy in place, and what a disservice it could be to the country and the president.”)
But Grisham’s account is still entertaining, if only for the metaphors she uses to describe her time in Trump’s inner circle (like “living in a house that was always on fire, or in an insane asylum where you couldn’t tell the difference between the patients and the attendants, or on a roller coaster that never stopped”) and for the brief glimpses into the former president’s inner world.
She writes, for example, that once when she and Trump were sitting on Air Force One, he turned to her, and commented, seemingly unprompted: “Trudeau’s mom. She fucked all of the Rolling Stones.’ (In fact, Margaret Trudeau denied having affairs with any members of the Rolling Stones, but later said, ‘I should have slept with every single one of them.’)”
Grisham also shared that, during her time as communications director, a teenager challenged the president to go vegan for one month in exchange for a $1 million donation to veterans groups. Trump refused, she said, explaining “It messes with your body chemistry, your brain.” Before adding: “And if I lose even one brain cell, we’re fucked.”